Rugby Union: Building on solid ground: Verve and vision is the ideal of France's new captain and the achievement of a vibrant England second string

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The Independent Online
IF JEAN-FRANCOIS TORDO were into marketing and public relations, as is fashionable for leading rugby players these days, he would no doubt be using terms like learning curve, behavioural objective and success ratio.

But France's new captain is a stonemason, and like the man himself his metaphors have an earthy, solid feel. 'If you don't have sound foundations, you always run the risk of having the whole thing come crashing down around your ears,' he observed after last month's defeat at Twickenham.

He was referring to the edifice of the French XV which, after a black year in 1992, is being rebuilt to respectability. 'OK, we didn't win, but we came within a hair's breadth of pulling it off. The most important thing, though, is that we succeeded where we most wanted to: in our discipline, our composure and our concentration.'

These are cornerstones for any team, but especially the French after being shamefully discomposed in their previous two encounters against England. All they need now to consolidate a basis for future success, beginning on Saturday when Scotland try to win in Paris for the first time since 1969, is the one ingredient lacking at Twickenham: le jeu a la Francaise.

'The easy part has been done by regaining our enthusiasm and team spirit,' Tordo said. 'We now have to prove that we can not only repeat that performance but also add on the missing factor - un peu de folie, a little French flair to add some spice to the game.'

The Tricolours proved against England that with discipline and concentration they could become a match for any team. They have, as Tordo put it, rediscovered the virtues of French rugby. The new captain has played no small role in this successful transformation.

Universally known as Jeff, the flanker-turned-hooker has, with his natural simplicity, brought the French team back to the realities of international rugby. 'We chose him for these very qualities,' Pierre Berbizier, the coach of France, said. 'Jeff is an example of courage and enthusiasm, humility and sacrifice. It's exactly the sort of thing we are trying to cultivate in this team.'

Tordo may not be the best hooker in France - indeed he is as yet unpractised in the art of line- out throwing, something which the scrum-half Aubin Hueber has had to take over - but he is the man who can catalyse the French, and lead them, as it now seems he will do, through to the 1995 World Cup.

He made an inauspicious start as captain when the French lost at home to Argentina in November, but at Twickenham - by which time he had moved from the back row to hooker - he played a key role in the French performance.

'I had to speak to my players only about two or three times as I could feel they were applying themselves and they were concentrating on the job. I remember at Nantes against Argentina I must have spoken to them about 15 times, but it felt like I was speaking into a vacuum. They just weren't in the match,' he said.

Despite these two defeats, Tordo says he enjoys the job. 'First of all it is a great honour for me. I recognise I am one of a privileged few, and it is something that I appreciate. But what motivates me is the fact that people have put their trust in me - like most rugbymen I am very sentimental and I have taken it to heart. I am ready to repay this trust.'

The 28-year-old Tordo lives in Nice with his wife and two children. When he is not overseeing building sites, or scuba diving in the Mediterranean, he devotes himself to what he hopes will one day be 'my own little Noah's Ark'. In the hills above Nice, Tordo has the beginnings of a menagerie which currently includes two cows, three wild pigs, ducks, hens, geese, two sheep and a white donkey named John. Not to mention Tordo's inseparable companion, Clyde, a large and hairy Scottish sheep-dog.

Looking like a latter-day Tarzan with his unruly mop of woolly hair, the 6ft 1in, 14st 10lb Tordo previously had a reputation on the field as something of a wild man. Berbizier strongly denies this claim, while Tordo himself blames his hair and his relatively small stature. 'My hair makes me very visible and more than once in the past I have been penalised simply because the referee could see something going on but was unable to identify anyone except me.'

But he does not deny that he bases his game on being dynamic and aggressive, always playing as close as possible to the offside line. 'I am smaller than most forwards these days, so I have to play that way to make up for it.'

As the French prepare to meet Scotland, Tordo's team is feeling the pressure from a French public anxious to see some rugby-champagne. Spectacular, crowd-pleasing rugby is not so much wishful thinking, he says, as an obligation. 'It's part of our culture, part of our game. We want to take pleasure in playing, but we also want to see the crowd at Parc des Princes up on their feet.

'It might last only two minutes, it might last half an hour, but we are ready for it. For a long time we had neglected the basic principles of the game; we wanted to play attractive rugby but we never had the ball. Now we know we can win the ball, but we still have the need for un peu de folie.'

PETER WRIGHT, the Boroughmuir tight-head prop who won two caps in Australia last summer, has replaced Alan Watt, who has a virus, at loose-head in Scotland's team for Paris. Kelso's Gary Isaac joins the replacements. Nottingham's Chris Gray will travel as cover for Bath lock Andy Reed, who has a thigh strain.

(Photograph omitted)

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